Given that this is Halloween week, I though we might focus on things scary and spooky—and so the story of my scariest teacher ever.
As luck would have it, I was assigned to my scariest teacher at a point in my life when I was already virtually terrified. I had just returned from my second summer of sleep-away camp which for me was a bit like coming back from Auschwitz or the gulag—everyone else in my cabin seemed to have a great time becoming young nine-year-old men at the same place where David Mamet had been shaped into cultivating his feminine side. While man took his first steps on the moon that summer, I nearly drowned underneath a dock.
In modern parlance, I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as I stood in line on the first day of fifth grade, filled with trepidation as we waited for the school doors to open and the teachers to claim the line of children who stood behind the pre-assigned yellow numbers painted on the black-top.
As Ms. Clifford walked inexorably toward my line and my last hope of one of the other teachers went dark, the world dropped into muffled slow motion—it was a death-sentence. This was the era in children’s education when you could still hit kids in public school, something equivalent to the end of the dark ages before the renaissance.
I had liked all my teachers up until this point, and had even been madly in love with both my kindergarten and first grade teachers (after a fire at my house in which I was carried out by firemen, I consistently fantasized improbably carrying my first-grade teacher out the doors of the burning school house in my six-year-old arms).
The formidable Ms. Clifford wore her hair in a Hawaii Five-O curl so big that a long-boarder could have probably ridden it; I once glimpsed her through the glass of the closed classroom door combing it out and re-setting it into the one big kahuna on the left side of her head. While she was mean, I must admit that she was actually rather pretty, in a Snow White’s wicked sexy queen sort of way.
Madame wicked-Clifford was a very-well-preserved one hundred years old, or so it seemed to me at the time; she mentioned grandchildren so I knew she was more than thirty, and anything north of that is virtually a crone-like hundred when you’re ten. She drove an old-style jeep, like Patton, but had it painted bright pink and modified the horn to be more lady-like. She lived in a rich part of Chicago, and didn’t need the money but clung to her teacher’s desk like a limpet on a rock.
Examples of her teaching style included shouting at the plumpest kid in the class to run to his desk, excoriating him for being lazy and therefore fat. She dealt with ADD by calling the hard-to-focus child up to the front of the room, grabbing his shirt collar and hurling him to the floor. Occasionally she found it hard to quiet the class, and would then pull a rather realistic looking cap-gun from her desk drawer, step up onto her chair and point the gun at her own temple. It’s a testament to us all being ten-years-old and still naïve that we would sit down for fear of her offing herself, rather than goad her to do it (the images of Viet Nam were still nightly on our TV screens and perhaps we feared she would execute one of us).
My coping strategy was to hide under my bed and refuse to go to school. I begged for a different teacher, but the school staff told my parents that Ms. Clifford had tenure and there was nothing they could do. It was a less litigious time and no one would think of truly defending a child against a seasoned teacher. After months of misery, my parents decided that I needed professional help. The only appointment they could get with the child psychiatrist was Friday afternoons, so I had to leave early from class which would have been great… if Ms. Clifford hadn’t told the class that I was going to a psychiatrist and had problems, so the kids should be nice to me.
This was a time where seeing a psychiatrist was still considered very private and slightly shameful, and once I knew that all the kids knew of course I felt like I just fit right in. The shrink himself was a nightmare, huge and insensitive with three slightly older macho sons who happily went to the summer camp I found hellish; when he finally got me to open up to him about how I felt shy and scared of school, he literally yelled at me, “You have a penis! You’re a man! You need to get out there and be a man!!” Genius.
My never even thinking about becoming a therapist had to have stemmed from his example, and it took decades before I would even consider an entirely different sort of therapy to both heal and to realize that it could even be a helpful job.
While I wouldn’t wish my childhood on anyone, and yet also know that mine was a relatively good childhood compared to the really sad tales of kids I’ve worked with, I actually value all my painful experiences as the root of my empathy and compassion, and as great training about how not to deal with children.
My two cents, however, is that if your kid tells you his or her teacher is a monster, take it seriously. Even if the child is distorting the situation, something (whether inside them or outside of them) is truly bothering them. Don’t just assume the teacher is a nightmare, but do meet with them, observe in the classroom, talk to other parents (especially of parents who had this teacher before). If after a thorough investigation you really think the teacher could be harmful or destructive, make some noise, get a transfer to another class, or consider changing schools altogether.
Kids can be unhappy and act out, or refuse school, for a variety of reasons ranging from anxiety or depression to learning differences that suggest a different approach, or a different school, might be appropriate.
For more on why ten-year-old brains may go into emotional crises at age ten, see: http://tiny.cc/GNEzI; for how to get an IEP (individualized education plan) see: http://tiny.cc/6p6LJ.
As for therapists for kids, my vote is for parents to go before sending kids—both to work out mom’s and dad’s issues before concluding that the child is troubled in a vacuum or that his or her pain has nothing to do with sorrow or pain in the family as a whole. Parents can benefit from consulting with a therapist so that instead of getting one hour a week of help, the child gets a whole week of help fueled by the parent’s increased insight and support. Finally, whether for yourself or your child, get a number of names, call at night and see if you get a good instinct from the voice-mail messages; meet several and ask yourself if you feel comfortable with any given therapist. If your child does end up going, listen to whether they felt comfortable and if not, keep looking.
So, let’s dedicate today to gratitude for the 99.9% of teacher out there who are truly cultural heroes, doing our most important work for relatively paltry wages; and let’s send some compassion toward the Ms. Cliffords of this world, the confused and wounded witches and warlocks who may not realize that they are spilling their own pain onto the children they think they are here to help; and finally, let’s send compassion to every child who today may feel scared to go to school, misunderstood and/or bad about themselves, in the hopes that such challenges will end up helping him or her find strength and his or her own true path.